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interview by Michael Cromartie

The Trials of Being Agnostic

A conversation with skeptic Wendy Kaminer.

Wendy Kaminer is the author of five previous books, including I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional (1992), a witty and widely quoted look at the recovery movement that firmly established her credentials as an urbane but unsparing social critic. In her new book, Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety (Pantheon), Kaminer turns her attention to what she regards as another species of human folly: the penchant for the irrational, by which she means everything from High Church Anglicanism to a credulous fascination with UFOs. (The belief that Elvis lives, Kaminer says, is no more irrational than the belief that Jesus rose from the dead; both beliefs are irrational, but one enjoys greater prestige than the other.)

Christians and other religious believers are likely to experience considerable cognitive dissonance when they hear Kaminer on the talk-show circuit decrying "the trendy deference toward religion" that plagues our land. "What's striking about journalists and intellectuals today," Kaminer writes, "is not their mythic Voltairian skepticism but their deference to belief and utter failure to criticize, much less satirize, America's romance with God." Michael Cromartie spoke with Kaminer in October in Washington, D.C.

I'm struck by how radically at odds your take on religion is with the conventional wisdom. I was just reading, in a recent issue of The New Republic, Andrew Delbanco's review of a collection of American sermons. In the tone of a man stating an obvious truth, he says that belief is really not an option for thinking people today. From the other side of the divide, Christians and observant Jews see an America in which religious belief is thoroughly under attack. Now along comes Wendy Kaminer saying that American society suffers from too much deference to religion, to such an extent we are threatened with a cultural turn away from rational thought. Why the discrepancy? Why do so many people, believers and unbelievers ...

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